US Catholic priests describe turmoil amid sex abuse crisis

In this Sunday, Oct. 20, 2019 photo, Rev. William Tourigny, 66, pastor of St. Rose de Lima Parish, in Chicopee, Mass., arranges vestments while preparing to offer Mass at the Catholic church. When Tourigny was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

By

More than a century ago, waves of Catholic immigrants from Ireland, Poland and Quebec settled in Chicopee and other western Massachusetts mill towns, helping build churches, rectories and schools to accommodate their faith. Today the priests leading those churches are under siege due to stresses, challenges and sex abuse scandals complicating their lives and those of their fellow priests across the United States.

The Rev. Mark Stelzer is among those trying to persevere. He’s a professor at a Roman Catholic college in Chicopee, and its chaplain. He travels frequently to out-of-state events organized by a Catholic addiction-treatment provider, recounting his own recovery from alcoholism.

Last year, his busy schedule got busier. Amid a worsening shortage of priests, the Diocese of Springfield named him administrator of a parish in Holyoke, Chicopee’s northern neighbor, where he lives alone in a mansion-sized rectory while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families of St. Jerome’s Church.

“I’m at an age where I thought I’d be doing less rather than doing more,” said Stelzer, 62.

Stelzer loves being a priest, yet he’s frank about the ever-evolving stresses of his vocation that leave him nostalgic for the priesthood he entered in 1983.

“It was a lot simpler then,” he said. “There’s a real longing, a mourning for the church that was — when there was a greater fraternity among priests, and the church was not facing these scandals that are now emerging every day.”

Stelzer’s concerns echoed those of other priests, and some of their psychological caregivers, who were interviewed by The Associated Press.

Weighing on the entire Catholic clergy in the U.S. is the ripple effect of their church’s long-running crisis arising from sex abuse committed by priests. It’s caused many honorable priests to sense an erosion of public support and to question the leadership of some of their bishops. That dismay is often compounded by increased workloads due to the priest shortage, and increased isolation as multi-priest parishes grow scarce. They see trauma firsthand. Some priests minister in parishes wracked by gun violence; others preside frequently over funerals of drug-overdose victims.

One such victim was a 31-year-old woman whose family was among Stelzer’s closest friends. “This is one of the few times I actually felt my voice quivering,” he said of the funeral service he led last year.

Burnout has been a perennial problem for clergy of many faiths. But Thomas Plante, a psychology professor at California’s Santa Clara University who has screened or treated hundreds of Catholic clerics, sees new forms of it as the sex abuse crisis persists and many parishioners lose trust in Catholic leadership.

“You’re just trying to be a good priest and now everyone thinks you’re a sex offender,” he said. “If you walk in a park with your collar on, people think you’re on the lookout for children. … Some have been spat upon.”

The Springfield diocese, like many across the U.S., has a long history of sex-abuse scandals. In the early 1990s, priest Richard Lavigne was defrocked and several of his victims received cash settlements. In 2004, a grand jury indicted Thomas Dupre on two counts of child molestation soon after he resigned following a 13-year stint as Springfield’s bishop.

Stelzer had hoped the abuse crisis was abating but it resurfaced dramatically over the past two years. Abuse allegations led to former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick’s ouster from the priesthood and a Pennsylvania grand jury report asserted that about 300 priests had abused at least 1,000 children in the state over seven decades.

“It opened up an old wound, and now we’re back to ground zero,” Stelzer said in an interview at the College of Our Lady of the Elms.

In this Saturday, Nov. 9, 2019 photo, Rev. Mark Stelzer, center, administrator of St. Jerome’s Parish, in Holyoke, Mass., puts on vestments before offering Mass at the Catholic church, in Holyoke. Stelzer, who is also a professor and chaplain at College of Our Lady of the Elms, in Chicopee, Mass., lives alone in the rectory at St. Jerome’s while serving as spiritual leader to the 500 families in the parish.

The wound is self-inflicted, said Rev. Philip Schmitter, 74, who has served for 50 years in Flint, Michigan. His stance endears him to an African American community where he lived in public housing for three decades to maintain close ties.

“This cover up, this ‘Let’s protect the institution’ was just a heinous, utterly unchristian kind of behavior,” he said.

___

Two miles north of Stelzer’s campus, on a recent Sunday, the Rev. William Tourigny was getting ready for the 4 p.m. Mass — his fourth and last of the day — at Ste. Rose de Lima Church.

When Tourigny, now 66, was ordained in 1980, the Springfield diocese had more than 300 priests serving 136 parishes. Since then, the ranks of priests have shrunk by more than half and nearly 60 of the parishes have closed. For Tourigny, it’s meant many more funerals to handle, including dozens related to drug overdoses and heavy drinking.

Even his own family has been scarred: Tourigny says the 27-year-old daughter of his first cousin was killed in circumstances he describes as fueled by her drug habit.

“But for her addiction, she was a wonderful mother,” Tourigny said.

Tourigny says he’s worked nearly 40 years without a real vacation. For years, he’s had therapy sessions, which he describes as “crucially important,” and he strives to minister compassionately without being engulfed in the emotions of those he consoles.

“I can share their pain but I can’t enter into it,” he said. “I’d be overwhelmed by grief.”

With 2,500 families, many of Polish and French Canadian descent, Tourigny’s parish has fared better with membership and finances than several nearby parishes. Yet Tourigny says many Catholics now mistrust the church hierarchy because of the flawed response to the abuse scandals.

“I was ordained at a time when the church was so alive — there was so much optimism,” he said. “Then things began to change quickly. It has changed the way people look at us. The church has lost credibility and it’s hard to get credibility back again.”

Plante, the California psychologist, says even priests deeply devoted to their work are upset.

“A lot are angry at bishops and the institutional church for screwing up — a lot of them feel they’ve been thrown under the bus,” he said. “They’re also concerned that one of these days someone will accuse them of misbehavior, even if they’ve done nothing wrong. They’re asking, ‘Did I do something 30 years ago that could be misconstrued, that will come back and haunt me?’”

The Rev. Stephen Fichter, pastor of St. Elizabeth Church in Wyckoff, New Jersey, said he has counseled people who’ve been abused by Catholic clergy and understands the “pain and horror” they experienced. Yet he voiced concerns on behalf of priests with unblemished careers who feel vulnerable to unwarranted suspicions.

“Sometimes a priest is confronted by an anonymous accusation from 30 or 40 years ago, and doesn’t have a chance to defend himself,” Fichter said. “It used to be innocent until proven guilty. Now a lot of priests feel it’s been turned upside down.”

___

Mark Stelzer proudly identifies himself as an alumnus of Guest House, a residential facility in Michigan that has specialized in addiction treatment for Catholic clergy since 1956. He travels frequently to make presentations on behalf of Guest House, and teaches a course at his Chicopee college titled “Addiction and Recovery.”

By the time he was ordained, Stelzer says, he was consuming alcohol daily. Only after five more years of steady drinking did acquaintances suggest he had a problem, leading to his stay at Guest House.

Guest House’s president, Jeff Henrich, is an experienced drug and alcohol counselor. He says substance abuse among priests is a longstanding problem but has been aggravated by recent developments — including the “residual shame” arising from the sex-abuse scandals and increased isolation as more priests now manage parishes on their own.

Since 1985, according to researchers at Georgetown University, the Catholic population in the U.S. has risen by nearly 20%, but the number of priests has plunged from more than 57,000 to under 37,000.

“There’s fewer of them and more work to do,” Henrich said. “That means you’re far more likely to live alone than ever before — and very few of us were meant to live alone.”

In response, treatment experts urge priests in recovery to find companionship in a support group and to form friendships outside their ministry.

Stelzer agrees that isolation raises the risks of substance abuse.

“We’re lone rangers,” he said. “Substance abuse might go undetected for longer when you’re living alone. A lot of those in treatment now say it was because of isolation, working harder and longer, and not feeling support from leadership.”

The harmful consequences of the priest shortage have come to the attention of the Vatican’s ambassador to the U.S., Archbishop Christophe Pierre. Addressing U.S. bishops in November, he urged them to be attentive to their priests’ health, spiritual well-being and sense of priestly fraternity.

“Many priests are saying they no longer know one another,” Pierre said. “Others, due to the priest shortage, are forced to live in isolation, managing multiple parishes.”

Stress, burnout, depression and addictions are among the conditions treated at St. Luke Institute, a residential treatment center for Catholic clergy and lay leaders, in Silver Spring, Maryland.

St. Luke’s president, the Rev. David Songy, is a psychologist who has worked extensively with troubled priests. One growing problem, he says, is that new priests are now often assigned their own parish within three years, instead of 10 or more in the past, and may be ill-prepared to oversee finances and personnel as well as pastoral duties.

“Some of the younger people that come to us — they’ve been overwhelmed and weren’t sure how to deal with things,” Songy said.

Other stressful changes relate to ideological differences. Tourigny considers himself a progressive and has welcomed lesbian couples into Ste. Rita. He says many young priests now emerging from seminary are less tolerant of LGBTQ congregants and eager to revive the tradition of celebrating Mass in Latin.

Another change noted by several priests: Some parishioners, rather than showing deference to their pastors, openly challenge them.

“In the past they might have disagreed, but they’d be courteous. Now it’s different,” said Fichter. “They think you are not Republican enough or Democratic enough depending on which end of the political spectrum they occupy. … They want you to preach what they want to hear, and they will confront you.”

At St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers, New York — just north of New York City — there’s increased emphasis on screening applicants for their ability to handle stress and avoid the burnout that’s now affecting some priests even early in their ministry.

“There’s no doubt these men coming forward are facing what will be a very stressful life,” said the Rev. Thomas Berg, the seminary’s vice rector. “We must be sure they have the skill set or will be able to develop it.”

“On top of that, in some places, you don’t have a sense that their bishop supports them,” added Berg. “In plenty of dioceses, priests are essentially treated as outside contractors — there’s a lack of a genuinely caring relationship.”

___

Police officers, firefighters and paramedics are collectively labeled first responders. Henrich, the Guest House president, says priests also merit that label.

“They see trauma and loss on a very regular basis,” he said. “They get called out to hospitals, deal with grieving families, with lost and dead children.”

Gun violence is the plague besetting the Rev. Mike Pfleger’s parish in an African American area of Chicago.

“It’s a war zone,” says Pfleger, an outspoken pastor at Saint Sabina Church since 1981. “Doing funerals of children is the hardest for me.”

The violence has ripple effects: He says parents of slain young people go through divorce, mental breakdowns, addiction.

“It becomes overwhelming when it’s day in and day out, and you don’t have the resources to meet the needs,” he said.

Now 70, Pfleger says his health is good, and his work rewarding. Yet he says he and his colleagues risk being overwhelmed by the crises facing their neighborhood of Auburn Gresham.

“I was seeing myself becoming depressed, after several violent deaths in a short span,” he said. “I needed to make sure I talked to somebody.

“Last year I didn’t take any days off — I realized that was a big mistake,” he added. “It’s important to have people around you to say, ‘Are you OK?’”

In Brunswick, Ohio, a town of 34,000 people 20 miles (30 kilometers) southeast of Cleveland, the Rev. Robert Stec’s priorities have been transformed, due to the scourge of opioids, since he became pastor of St. Ambrose Church in 2005.

In 2016, Brunswick’s Medina County reported 20 opioid-related deaths. Stec presided over six funerals of those victims in a short span. While sharing parishioners’ grief, Stec resolved to combat the opioid epidemic and founded a multifaith coalition of northeast Ohio religious leaders.

Stec is grateful that Brunswick has better-than-average mental health services. But he and his fellow priests in drug-ravaged towns still employ a triage policy, seeking help for the most dire cases, because they can’t provide comprehensive support to every affected parishioner.

“We weren’t trained for this in the seminary,” he said.

Still the priests treasure their jobs despite the challenges. Mark Stelzer holds onto his role as a comforter. “For a lot of people, I’m the last person they saw while they were still alive,” he said. “There’s an energy and grace in those moments.”

Complete Article HERE!

Buffalo Bishop Malone resigns following accusations that he mishandled sex abuse cases

By Chico Harlan 

The Vatican on Wednesday announced the resignation of Bishop Richard J. Malone, who stoked fury in his Buffalo diocese for the alleged mishandling of sexual abuse claims, and whose tenure became emblematic of the Catholic Church’s struggle to overcome its central crisis.

Under Malone’s watch, Buffalo had become perhaps the U.S. Church’s most scandal-tainted diocese. It faces an FBI probe and more than 200 lawsuits. Malone pledged to institute reforms, but he was instead battered by accusations of coverup and by embarrassing leaks. One whistleblower said she found a 300-page dossier on accused priests hidden away in a supply closet near a vacuum cleaner.

In a short statement, the Vatican said that Malone would be replaced on a temporary basis by Albany’s bishop, Edward Scharfenberger.

Malone, 73, is departing two years before the mandatory age at which bishops must offer their retirements to Pope Francis — though many prelates stay on the job beyond the 75-year mark. The Vatican did not explain the reasons for Malone’s resignation.

Malone’s case offers mixed signals about how the Vatican is dealing with bishops accused of negligence or coverup and whether changes drawn up by Francis will help the institution police its upper ranks.

The Vatican did not use a system, put in place by the pontiff earlier this year, that would have allowed the region’s top bishop — in this case, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York — to open an investigation. Instead, in something of an ad hoc measure, the Vatican dispatched a different prelate, Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, on a “nonjudicial” fact-finding mission to Buffalo.

The Associated Press reported last month that DiMarzio himself is facing accusations of sexually abusing a child. DiMarzio denies the allegations.

For more than a year, Malone had resisted calls to step down. But the pressure ratcheted up as the revelations seemed to build. In September, a Buffalo television station broadcast audio, secretly recorded by the bishop’s priest-secretary, in which the bishop worried about what might happen if the sexual harassment accusations that a seminarian had leveled against a priest became public.

“This could be the end for me as bishop,” Malone said in the leaked recording.

But the situation was even more convoluted. The seminarian, Matthew Bojanowski, accused Malone of failing to take actions against the parish priest. Meantime, news outlets obtained a letter from the bishop’s priest-secretary to Bojanowski that suggested the two had a romantic relationship.

In September, Malone held a news conference in which he awkwardly tried to make sense of the “complex situation” and faced sharp questions about his judgment.

The local congressman called on Malone to resign. So too did a council of prominent Catholics. A petition calling for Malone’s departure gathered more than 12,000 signatures, accusing him of deceit and for being a “silent accomplice” to the crimes of priests. A Buffalo News poll in September said that 86 percent of Catholics wanted him to resign. Picketers had followed the bishop to recent events, and the newspaper reported that the diocese had ceased publishing the bishop’s event calendar.

“Bishop Malone did this to himself by ignoring the problems that existed in Buffalo,” Bojanowski said by email. “He lied to the people, wanting them to think that there was transparency, when all there was were coverups upon coverups.”
“There are many priests in Buffalo that need to be laicized,” Bojanowski continued. “Bishop Malone leaving is just a start, but far from over. Buffalo is in desperate need of a strong leader who will stand up to the many bully priests that don’t want to serve their community, but rather just serve themselves.”

Malone has been bishop of Buffalo since 2012. Last month, he traveled along with other New York State bishops to the Vatican and met with Pope Francis. After returning, Malone issued a statement that gave no indication he planned to step down.

“In a few words spoken privately to me, it was clear that the pope understands the difficulties and distress we here in Buffalo, and I personally, have been experiencing,” Malone said at the time. “He was very understanding and kind.”
The problems for Malone escalated early in 2018 when an initial accuser came forward, describing molestation as a teenager at the hands of a priest. A wellspring of abuse complaints followed, and in March 2018, Malone released a list of 42 priests who had been credibly accused of abuse, mostly from earlier decades. But it was anything but full transparency: Malone’s former administrative assistant had seen an earlier draft of the list. It contained more than 100 names.

Going public to “60 Minutes” last year, the former administrative assistant, Siobhan O’Connor, accused Malone of wiping some of the most problematic names from the public record. One of the missing names was that of a priest who had been accused of inappropriately touching two boys. According to the “60 Minutes” report, Malone endorsed that priest for a job as a cruise ship chaplain.

Complete Article HERE!

New abuse suits could cost church over $4B

In this Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, photo, attorney Adam Slater takes a phone call on a patio outside his high-rise Manhattan office overlooking St. Patrick’s Cathedral, in New York. Slater’s firm is representing clients accusing the Roman Catholic Church of sexual abuse, a clientele that is rapidly growing after New York state opened its one-year window allowing sex abuse suits with no statute of limitations.

By BERNARD CONDON and JIM MUSTIAN

At the end of another long day trying to sign up new clients accusing the Roman Catholic Church of sexual abuse, lawyer Adam Slater gazes out the window of his high-rise Manhattan office at one of the great symbols of the church, St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

“I wonder how much that’s worth?” he muses.

Across the country, attorneys like Slater are scrambling to file a new wave of lawsuits alleging sexual abuse by clergy, thanks to rules enacted in 15 states that extend or suspend the statute of limitations to allow claims stretching back decades. Associated Press reporting found the deluge of suits could surpass anything the nation’s clergy sexual abuse crisis has seen before, with potentially more than 5,000 new cases and payouts topping $4 billion.

It’s a financial reckoning playing out in such populous Catholic strongholds as New York, California and New Jersey, among the eight states that go the furthest with “lookback windows” that allow sex abuse claims no matter how old. Never before have so many states acted in near-unison to lift the restrictions that once shut people out if they didn’t bring claims of childhood sex abuse by a certain age, often their early 20s.

That has lawyers fighting for clients with TV ads and billboards asking, “Were you abused by the church?” And Catholic dioceses, while worrying about the difficulty of defending such old claims, are considering bankruptcy, victim compensation funds and even tapping valuable real estate to stay afloat.

“It’s like a whole new beginning for me,” said 71-year-old Nancy Holling-Lonnecker of San Diego, who plans to take advantage of an upcoming three-year window for such suits in California. Her claim dates back to the 1950s, when she says a priest repeatedly raped her in a confession booth beginning when she was 7 years old.

“The survivors coming forward now have been holding on to this horrific experience all of their lives,” she said. “They bottled up those emotions all of these years because there was no place to take it.”

Now there is.

___

AP interviews with more than a dozen lawyers and clergy abuse watchdog groups offered a wide range of estimates but many said they expected at least 5,000 new cases against the church in New York, New Jersey and California alone, resulting in potential payouts that could surpass the $4 billion paid out since the clergy sex abuse first came to light in the 1980s.

Lawyers acknowledged the difficulty of predicting what will happen but several believed payouts could exceed the $350,000 national average per child sex abuse case since 2003. At the upper end, a key benchmark is the average $1.3 million the church paid per case the last time California opened a one-year window to suits in 2003. That offers a range of total payouts in the three big Catholic states alone from $1.8 billion to as much as $6 billion.

Some lawyers believe payouts could be heavily influenced by the recent reawakening over sexual abuse fueled by the #MeToo movement, the public shaming of accused celebrities and the explosive Pennsylvania grand jury report last year that found 300 priests abused more than 1,000 children in that state over seven decades. Since then, attorneys general in nearly 20 states have launched investigations of their own.

“The general public is more disgusted than ever with the clergy sex abuse and the cover-up, and that will be reflected in jury verdicts,” said Mitchell Garabedian, a Boston attorney who was at the center of numerous lawsuits against the church in that city and was portrayed in the movie “Spotlight.”

Said Los Angeles lawyer Paul Mones, who has won tens of millions in sex abuse cases against the church going back to the 1980s: “The zeitgeist is completely unfavorable to the Catholic Church.”

For Mones, the size of lawsuit payouts under the new laws could hinge on whether most plaintiffs decide to settle their cases with dioceses or take their chances with a trial.

“The X-factor here is whether there will be trials,” he said. “If anyone starts trying these cases, the numbers could become astronomical.”

Since the 15 states enacted their laws at different times over the past two years, the onslaught of lawsuits is coming in waves.

This summer, when New York state opened its one-year window allowing sexual abuse suits with no statute of limitations, more than 400 cases against the church and other institutions were filed on the first day alone. That number is now up to more than 1,000, with most targeting the church.

New Jersey’s two-year window opens this week and California’s three-year window begins in the new year, with a provision that allows plaintiffs to collect triple damages if a cover-up can be shown. Arizona, Montana and Vermont opened ones earlier this year. Even one of the biggest holdouts, Pennsylvania, is moving closer to a window after legislators voted last month to consider amending its constitution to make it easier to pass one.

Already, longtime clergy abuse lawyer Michael Pfau in Seattle says he’s signed up about 800 clients in New York, New Jersey and California. Boston’s Garabedian says he expects to file 225 in New York, plus at least 200 in a half-dozen other states. Another veteran abuse litigator, James Marsh, says he’s collected more than 200 clients in New York alone.

“A trickle becomes a stream becomes a flood,” Marsh said. “We’re sort of at the flood stage right now.”

Church leaders who lobbied statehouses for years against loosening statute-of-limitations laws say this is exactly the kind of feeding frenzy they were worried about. And some have bemoaned the difficulty of trying to counter accusations of abuse that happened so long ago that most witnesses have scattered and many of the accused priests are long dead.

“Dead people can’t defend themselves,” said Mark Chopko, former general counsel to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. “There is also no one there to be interviewed. If a diocese gets a claim that Father Smith abused somebody in 1947, and there is nothing in Father Smith’s file and there is no one to ask whether there is merit or not, the diocese is stuck.”

___

Slater’s Manhattan offices may have views of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, spiritual home of New York City’s Catholic archdiocese, but ground zero for his church abuse lawsuit operation is a call center, of sorts, about an hour’s drive away in suburban Long Island, in an office building overlooking a parking lot.

There, headset-wearing paralegals in a dozen cubicles answer calls in response to ads on talk radio and cable TV news channels pleading: “If you were sexually abused by a member of the clergy, even if it happened decades ago … you may be entitled to financial compensation.”

That pitch spoke to 57-year-old Ramon Mercado, who had long kept silent about the abuse he suffered in the 1970s, in part because he didn’t want to upset his devout Catholic mother. Since her recent death, he’s ready to talk about the New York City priest who invited him into his Plymouth sedan to warm up on a cold day and ended up molesting him hundreds of times over the next three years.

“I was sitting in my living room and someone came on TV, ‘If you’ve been molested, act now,’” Mercado said. “After so many years, I said, ‘Why not?’”

When such calls come in, the paralegals are trained to press for details but to do so gently.

“What age would you say you were?”

“Ten or 11? OK. Would you remember the face if you saw it?”

“He would take you out of your bed? What did he say when he came to get you?”

“Do you want to take a break? Are you OK? Are you sure?”

The next step is to get a lawyer on the line to see if it’s a case they can take to court. Slater says that out of the more than 3,000 calls his firm has taken leading up to and since the opening of New York’s one-year window, it has signed up nearly 300 clients, and expects another 200 by the middle of next year.

One recent day, lawyers talked to at least a half-dozen potential plaintiffs by lunchtime, with one saying she was raped at a first communion party and another saying a priest sodomized him after he was told to pull down his pants so his temperature could be taken.

In a windowless break room over pizza, the lawyers recounted some of the other horrific claims they’ve heard in just the past few months: A young girl penetrated by a finger, then a fist; a boy raped by three priests at the same time; an altar boy told to perform oral sex and then swallow because it would “absolve him of his sins.”

One plaintiff still smells the alcohol on the priest’s breath decades later. Another says he can still hear the priest approaching his classroom as he came to get him, the squeak of shoes in the school hallway.

One man called with his story and later killed himself. A terminally-ill woman called from a hospice care center — “I’ve been holding this in my whole life.”

Many of the accusations involve those already identified by dioceses as “credibly accused” — there are 5,173 priests, lay persons and other clergy member that meet that standard, according to a recent AP tally. Those are the easy cases.

But many others are like Mercado’s, involving priests never accused publicly before, some long dead. And so that turns lawyers into cold-case investigators, calling retired Catholic school teachers and retired rectory staff, combing through yearbooks and, in Mercado’s case, tracking down missionary workers who went on the priest’s overseas trips.

“This type of case isn’t for every law firm. It’s not a hit-in-the-rear car accident,” Slater said. “There is work to be done.”

And money to be made. For his fee, Slater said he plans to ask for a full third of any awards his clients collect and he’s been spending in anticipation, hiring a half-dozen new paralegals, opening an office in New Jersey and breaking a wall in Long Island to make more room.

One of the lawyers eating pizza, Steven Alter, pushed back when asked if the people coming forward are just in it for the money.

“It’s not a cash grab,” he said. “They want to have a voice. They want to help other people and make sure it doesn’t happen again.

“I haven’t had one person ask me about the money yet.”

___

This is the day the Catholic Church has long feared.

The church spent millions of dollars lobbying statehouses for decades, arguing it would be swamped with lawsuits if time limits on suing were lifted. That battle now lost, it is girding for Round Two, by turning to compensation funds and bankruptcy.

Compensation funds offer payment to victims if they agree not take their claims to court. They offer a faster, easier way to some justice, and cash, but the settlements are typically a fraction of what victims can get in trials. And critics say the church is just using them to avoid both a bigger financial hit and full transparency.

New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan set up the first fund in 2016, pitching it as a way to compensate victims without walloping the church and forcing it to cut programs. It has since paid more than $67 million to 338 alleged victims, an average $200,000 each.

The idea has caught on in other states. All five dioceses in New Jersey and three in Colorado opened one, as did seven dioceses in Pennsylvania and six in California, including the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, the largest in the U.S.

Such funds, Dolan said in a newspaper op-ed piece last year, “prevent the real possibility — as has happened elsewhere — of bankrupting both public and private organizations, including churches, that provide essential services in education, charity and health care.”

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League and a longtime critic of the new statute-of-limitations laws, said their effect — if not their intent — “is to disable the church.”

“When a diocese goes bankrupt, everyone gets hurt,” he said.

But bankruptcy has become an increasingly more common option. Less than a month after New York’s one-year lookback window took effect, the upstate Diocese of Rochester filed for bankruptcy, the 20th diocese or religious order in the country to do so, listing claims from alleged abuse survivors and other creditors as much as $500 million. Assets to pay that are estimated at no more than one-fifth that amount.

The Diocese of Buffalo may be next. It has begun paying victims of the 100 priests it considers “credibly accused” of abuse, tapping proceeds from the sale of a lavish $1.5 million mansion that once housed its bishop who is facing pressure to resign.

When a diocese files for bankruptcy, lawsuits by alleged abuse survivors are suspended and payments to them and others owed money — contractors, suppliers, banks, bondholders — are frozen while a federal judge decides how much to pay everyone and still leave enough for the diocese to continue to operate. It’s orderly and victims avoid costly and lengthy court cases, but they often get less than they would if they were successful in a trial.

A recent Penn State study of 16 dioceses and other religious organizations that had filed for bankruptcy protection by September 2018 found that victims received an average settlement of $288,168.

Bankruptcy can also leave abuse survivors with a sense of justice denied because the church never has to face discovery by plaintiff lawyers and forced to hand over documents, possibly implicating higherups who hid the abuse.

For many of his clients, Slater said, the fight in court is crucial because they want to expose the culture behind the crime, not just out a single priest.

“They want to see how the church allowed them to be abused, how they ruined their lives. The church is solely in possession of the information and there is no other way to get it,” he said. “It’s a different process in bankruptcy — you don’t get discovery and you don’t get it in compensation programs. The truth never comes to light.”

Other church tactics in the past few months could be a harbinger for the future.

In July, the Archdiocese of New York sued 31 of its insurers, fearing they would balk at paying all the new alleged victims.

And just last month, church officials on nearby Long Island sought to throw out New York’s new statutes of limitations law in sex abuse cases, arguing it violates the due process clause of the state constitution. The Diocese of Rockville Centre contends time limits to file suits can only be extended in “exceptional circumstances,” such as when plaintiffs are unable to file because they are abroad in a war zone.

Another pair of long shot cases are being closely watched because of the obvious financial implications. Five men who claim they were sexually abused by priests when they were minors filed suit in Minnesota earlier this year contending some of the responsibility rests with the world headquarters of the church — the Vatican. Then came another abuse suit last month in Buffalo accusing the Vatican of racketeering.

The Vatican is a sovereign state widely seen as off limits to abuse victims, but some lawyers say it’s time, especially now that U.S. dioceses are under attack, that it begins tapping its vast wealth.

Raymond P. Boucher, a veteran Los Angeles sexual abuse attorney, contends the Vatican’s legendary riches include stashes of art in vaults that could not possibly be exhausted “and still pay every single claim that anybody could bring in the United States.”

“They have them just in the vaults. They don’t even have to take anything off the walls.”

Complete Article HERE!